THE PERFECT WOMAN
ADVANCE PREVIEW
 
OUT JULY 30TH, 2020
 
PROLOGUE

May 2018

 

From: Matthew Zola

To: Nina de Vries

Date: May 29, 2018, 9:10 AM

Subject: Last Night

 

Nina,

 

I know I don’t have to say it again, but I feel like I should. There is too much on the line. You know it. I know it. 

 

Last night can’t happen again.

 

Matthew

~

From: Nina de Vries

To: Matthew Zola

Date: May 29, 2018, 9:21 AM

Subject: RE: Last Night

 

Ever?

 

Nina

~

From: Matthew Zola

To: Nina de Vries

Date: May 29, 2018, 9:23 AM

Subject: RE: RE: Last Night

 

Come on, doll. Don’t make me feel worse than I already do.

~

From: Nina de Vries

To: Matthew Zola

Date: May 29, 2018, 9:26 AM

Subject: Remorse

 

I’m sorry. 

~

From: Matthew Zola

To: Nina de Vries

Date: May 29, 2018, 9:31 AM

Subject: Remorse? Why?

 

Sorry for what? This isn’t your fault. None of it is.

~

From: Matthew Zola

To: Nina de Vries

Date: May 29, 2018, 10:25 AM

Subject: Where did you go?

 

Nina?

~

From: Matthew Zola

To: Nina de Vries

Date: May 29, 2018, 10:57 AM

Subject: Starting to feel like a stalker…

 

Duchess?

~

From: Matthew Zola

To: Nina de Vries

Date: May 29, 2018 11:39 AM

Subject: Begging now…

 

Baby, please. Have a little mercy.

~

From: Nina de Vries

To: Matthew Zola

Date: May 29, 2018 11:52 AM

Subject: It hurts

 

I’m sorry I need you like I do. 

I never wanted to make your life so difficult.

~

From: Matthew Zola

To: Nina de Vries

Date: May 29, 2018 11:55 AM

Subject: So damn much

 

A life without knowing you isn’t worth living. No matter what happens, believe that. 

I have no regrets. 

~

From: Nina de Vries

To: Matthew Zola

Date: May 29, 2018 11:57 AM

Subject: At least there is that…

 

I love you, Matthew. 

 

Goodbye.

 

Nina

~

PRELUDE

Matthew

 

I stared at the last email for what seemed like hours. The last email, maybe, I’d ever get from Nina de Vries. Technically her name was Gardner, but she didn’t use it on this account, which I had a feeling she had set up for me. Just as I used my personal account to communicate with her. I hated thinking of her that way anyway, bearing the shitty name of a man no better than gum on the bottom of my shoe. As the tall, stunningly beautiful daughter of one of the oldest and richest families in New York, Nina was royalty in every sense of the word. Her family’s name fit her better than that rat bastard Calvin Gardner’s ever would. 

I swallowed hard, staring at the last few words of her final missive. The truth was, I didn’t want this to be the end. I was already halfway to grabbing my phone and dialing her number. Telling her to meet me back at the Grace Hotel in the Lower East Side tonight so we could continue what we’d started last night.

Her text had been short and simple, but one I couldn’t ignore, even though less than a week ago we’d decided to stop whatever this was between us in its tracks.

I need you. 

Fuck me. I needed her too, and I’d have given her the world if I could. But life doesn’t give most people a happy ending, and in our case, it had given us a straight-up tragedy. 

Five months ago, I’d walked into a bar on a gloomy January night, wondering what the hell was missing from my life as a Brooklyn prosecutor, dutiful brother, and occasional philanderer. Well, I’d gotten my answer, I’ll tell you that. It came in the form of an angel on a bar stool, drinking a glass of red wine with her pinky raised in the air. 

We’d taken that one night together, and then she’d disappeared. Three months later, I’d found her again as I took on the hardest case of my career—a secret investigation into one of the biggest human trafficking kingpins this city had ever seen. John Carson made Jeffrey Epstein look like Ned Flanders. As of last week, Carson was dead, but the case was far from over. Two other men had been photographed at the safe house in Brooklyn just a few weeks ago. One, Jude Letour, was safely awaiting trial at Rikers without bail. The other had been indicted and released. 

He also happened to be married to Nina de Vries. Which, as of three weeks ago, meant that not only did the love of my life belong to someone else, she was also the one woman on the planet I could truly never have. 

It was simple. 

There was no one in the world who could prosecute this case but me. And these guys needed to be in jail. They needed to be locked up where they could never hurt anyone. Ever. Again. But the prosecutor shacking up with the defendant’s wife, even after the trial was over? Definitely grounds for a mistrial. Hell, it was grounds for disbarment. 

In five short months, being with Nina de Vries had become as essential as breathing. But being together would spell my ruin, and probably hers too. 

I couldn’t have that. Not for me. Not for either of us. 

Even so, my heart felt like a fifty-pound anvil in my chest as I stared at her name and the blinking cursor beneath it, awaiting my response.

I love you. 

She had said that the night before the world went to hell too. Until then, I hadn’t really known if this feeling went both ways. She had shown up at my doorstep the night John Carson died by her cousin’s hand. Frantic, alone, and out of breath. 

And then she had done the impossible. The most perfect woman I could have ever imagined for myself jumped into my arms and told me she needed me. Begged me to throw caution to the wind and spend the rest of our lives together, social mores be damned.

For a few hours, we didn’t care that she had a kid or a ring on her finger. 

We didn’t care about the scandal. 

We didn’t care about anything but what lay between us. 

Need.

Lust. 

Love.

And not just any love. The kind that goes beyond the grave. The kind that your kids and their kids tell stories about when you’re gone. The kind that lasts for generations.

And then I’d gotten that fucking phone call and done the last thing I’d ever wanted to do. I’d sent Nina back to her husband. I wanted to keep her name out of my office’s mouth. I couldn’t protect her from this trial, but her husband could, goddammit. Spousal privilege would prevent her from having to defend his sorry ass. And then, when it was all over, she could leave him. 

I just couldn’t go with her.

I sighed, picked up the new file on Calvin Gardner from my desk, and absently flipped through it. We jumped the gun a little on the indictment, but given the suddenness of John Carson’s death, we couldn’t risk losing the last thread that held the operation together. We had been lucky Gardner’s lawyers had waived their right to a speedy trial in favor of a lengthy discovery process. We had sixty days, said the judge, but based on the obliqueness of the information so far, I was guessing we’d end up asking for sixty more.

His life was confusing, to say the least. Derek Kingston, the special investigator with the Bureau of Organized Crime, hadn’t been able to determine his exact relationship to the safe house where he had been spotted, and neither had I. Carson was identified as the owner of that particular house, and it was still empty. But girls from Cypress Hills, the nearby housing project, were still disappearing. Twenty so far, with a lot of other leads in other neighborhoods too. With Carson and Letour out of the equation, that had to mean Gardner was in charge of that scheme, or he was working with someone else. 

The problem was finding out who, or where they were. And if it was outside Brooklyn—outside of our jurisdiction. As yet, the U.S. Attorney, once on John Carson’s payroll, had been unwilling to tap into the investigation. Carson’s ability to cover up the crimes of his cronies seemed to extend beyond the grave. 

A knock at the door pulled me out of my misery. Derek, in his typical street clothes of jeans, a faded Yankees jacket, and a backwards baseball hat, stood in the doorway, one sneaker crossed over the other. He didn’t exactly fit in with the suited lawyers here on Jay Street, but what made Derek the best investigator we had was his ability to blend in everywhere else.

Today, though, he didn’t look like he was particularly enjoying his job. 

“Be honest,” I said as I swiveled in my chair. “You wish you were writing traffic tickets right now, don’t you?”

Derek snorted as he walked in. It was a frequent joke between us, actually. He’d been about ten seconds from leaving the NYPD when he was called up for the special investigator position, right when I was also ready to abandon the DA for some private-sector contract bullshit. Derek and I ended up saving each other’s careers and had been friends ever since.

“Different jobs, same dead ends,” he said, flopping into the other chair in my small office. He shook his head. “We’re getting outside our jurisdiction, Zo.”

“You’ve been saying that for months.”

“This is different.” 

I frowned, glancing at the still-open door. Derek turned in his chair and kicked it shut before swiveling back to me. 

“What do you mean?” I asked. “The Pantheon filing was a dead end too?”

I’d asked Derek to investigate the LLC that was technically on the lease of the house. We already knew Carson owned it, but I was betting there were other names associated with it too. There had to be if the operation was still in effect after the man was dead.

“The LLC was registered in Delaware,” Derek said. “A no-name shell corporation, of course. That tiny fuckin’ state has more corporations than people, did you know that?”

I nodded. I did actually know that—most of the legit corporations in New York were registered in Delaware for the tax and anonymity benefits, not to mention the underground operations I made my living going after. So, the fact that the LLC listed as the lessee for the safe house was registered in one of four states that allowed anonymous ownership wasn’t particularly surprising. 

“Well, John Carson was a criminal mastermind, not an idiot,” I said. “We thought this might happen. He made the mistake of putting his name on one deed, but the others are someone else’s problem now. I just need the documents. Somewhere, there’s a name. Who’s associated with the LLC?” Delaware state law required that an anonymous LLC must name someone who knows  the owner, even if that name wasn’t the owner himself. 

Derek shook his head. “Dead end. It was John Carson.”

I raised a brow. “Shit. So we don’t even know if he was the owner. The utilities, maybe?”

Derek shook his head. “Garbage, water, sewer. All the same LLC.” 

I drummed my fingers on the desk. “But the job hasn’t stopped. Girls are still disappearing. Someone else besides Carson owns that company.”

“Fuck, Zola, I know that.”

I frowned, but ignored my friend’s sharp tone. Given the fact that he was from East New York himself, I wondered if this case was more personal for him than most. 

He seemed to feel it too, because when he spoke next, it was a bit more measured. “Look. We only found two other houses in New York owned outright by Pantheon, and they’ve all been cleared out too. If Gardner is still moving anything—girls or guns—he’s doing it outside of where we can get to them.”

“So let’s look. No harm in that. Nothing says we can’t snoop around, even if we can’t make an arrest.”

“What do you want me to do, Zo? Call the Delaware staties?” Derek snorted again at just the thought of it. “Tell them to be on the lookout for a masked company zooming down the highway? You want me to go driving around with them too?”

I rolled my eyes. “Give me a break, man. That’s not what I meant.” 

“This is a job for feds, Zola. It’s across state lines. We’re not voyeurs.”

“And if we give it back to the feds, you know exactly what’s going to happen,” I retorted. “You, me, Cardozo, and anyone else working this case are suddenly targets.”

I frowned toward the door, like somehow looking in that direction could get me closer to the gun safe in the bottom of the building, where my Beretta and its holster were stowed along with those belonging to other people like me working for the Kings County District Attorney. We were some of the lucky ones. Not all district or state’s attorneys allowed their prosecutors to carry to and from work, despite the fact that prosecutors faced consistent death threats as a result of just doing their damn jobs. But the reality was, when you went after bad guys for a living, sometimes the bad guys came after you.

It got complicated when the bad guys were supposed to be on your side.

“I just need the documents,” I said again. “Something that shows Gardner’s involvement beyond a shadow of a doubt. Right now, we don’t have enough for a conviction beyond accessory, and that’s only a year tops, more likely just a fine. Keep following the money, King. Here’s what I think: you keep nosing around Brooklyn, and I’ll contact a few people I know in Newark. Not everyone’s a crook. There have to be a few good eggs out there.”

Derek didn’t look particularly pleased by this idea. I understood. If the crimes we were looking for had in fact moved someplace like New Jersey, we were basically turning over a year-long investigation free and clear, allowing for another prosecutor to run off with the conviction. It was painful. But not as painful as Calvin Gardner getting off scot-free. 

“Someone is going to turn up,” I said, “and I’d bet my last dollar it’s Calvin Gardner.”

Derek continued to study me. “Zola, don’t take this the wrong way, but…did you ever think that maybe he’s not actually the guy?”

The look on my face must have told him I abso-fuckin’-lutely hadn’t.

Derek worried his jaw around a little bit. “Look, Zola. I—I don’t know how else to say this but to come out and ask. Could your attachment to Nina Gardner be fucking with your judgment here?”

If I had looked up any quicker, my head might have popped up. “I’m sorry, what? What the fuck are you talking about?”

Yeah, I know. The lady doth protest too much. Or in this case, the irritated fuckin’ prosecutor.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa. It was just a question, man.” Derek held his hands up in surrender. “I’m not saying I know anything. I’m not saying I’ve seen anything. And to be honest, I don’t really want you to tell me if I’m right. Because if I am, that puts me in the weird spot of having to report you to Ramirez and your bureau chief. Since you’re the only paper pusher I’ve ever liked, I don’t want to do that.” 

I snorted. The animosity between the NYPD and the prosecutors’ offices in the city was legendary. 

“Fuck you,” I said. “I’m not a fuckin’ paper pusher, and you know it.”

Derek shrugged, though he cracked a good-natured grin all the same. “The point remains. Is there any chance you want this guy to be guilty more than he is?”

“King, we already took it to trial. It’s not just me that needs the guy to be guilty of more than a single count of aiding and abetting.”

“Yeah, but what if he’s not? Just because you got a thing for his wife doesn’t mean he’s the worst guy on the planet, Zola. I know you want him to be more than one of Carson’s lackeys, but I gotta be honest, my friend. I’m not sure it’s there.”

We sat together in silence, ruminating over the possibility. I knew Derek was right. So far, the evidence against Calvin Gardner was weak, and nothing more had come up in the last three weeks. 

And yeah, there was a girl involved in my investigations, possibly swaying my judgment (though I was never going to admit as much to Derek). But I couldn’t shake the fact that this went beyond my feelings for Nina. My gut hadn’t led me astray once in seven years at this job. I wasn’t ready to concede the first time. Not yet.

“Look, we still have another month until trial, more if I can extend discovery. I have an idea.” I nodded as the rest of it came to me. “I want to come back to the person associated with the Pantheon.”

Derek scowled. “Zola, we covered this already.”

“Yeah, but don’t you see? That’s where whoever owns Pantheon made his big mistake.” I nodded again, sitting up straight. “He named a dead man, but everything associated with the LLC is still running like he never died. Pantheon wasn’t included in his will either. Which means the person or people who actually own Pantheon are still alive.” 

Derek blinked. “Okay…” 

“Don’t you get it?” I clapped my hands together. “You can’t know someone if you’re dead, King. They have to change it by law, and we can ask them to do it. The owner names a known compatriot, and boom—we have a whole new suspect with a whole new bunch of connections, not to mention weaknesses to exploit.”

Finally, Derek’s eyes brightened. He nodded. 

“Okay,” he said. “Okay, so you’ll…”

“You just keep watching those houses, keep interviewing people at all the other fronts, and file a request for the known associate, my friend. Within a month, we’ll have a new target. And this case will be back on track.”

~

PREORDER THE PERFECT WOMAN
AVAILABLE ON ALL RETAILERS THROUGH RELEASE DAY ONLY